Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Synopsis - made you duck!

For many writers, Synopsis is a dirty word. And who can blame us? We're regularly told we can't sell a book without one, by people who in the same breath say writing a synopsis is harder than writing a novel (it isn't and if it is, you're doing it wrong). Most agents insist on a synopsis. Some insist it fits on one page which adds to the stress. To top it all, sooner or later we find out from a published friend that most agents and publishers don't even bother reading the damn things, or certainly not until they're read enough of the manuscript to be interested in the broad story outline.

I put the phrase 'the dreaded synopsis' into an anagram engine and it fed back Depressant Hid Sod Ye. Which... doesn't really help with the point I'm about to make. I'm going to show you how to use the synopsis as a weapon to scare the gremlins away from your writing life (rather than allowing it to become the biggest gremlin of all).

I've just spent two hours putting down a synopsis on one page which has clarified for me the central issues and theme of my current novel. More than that it's trimmed off all the fat, shown me what doesn't belong and what jars. It's shaken everything into place, preparatory to the hard work of writing the story.

This post I wrote gives you a more detailed account of how I approach this kind of synopsis, but in essence the process works like this:

1. Aim for a synopsis that fits on a single side of A4 (around 800 words). Make it have a beginning, a middle and an end.

2. If, like most writers, you have preconceived ideas of 'your limits' (those little voices in your head telling you you can't write conflict or action or pathos) - ignore them. This is absolutely key. Shuck off all your expectations, free yourself from worrying about how on earth you're going to write this story. Tell yourself the synopsis is not for a book you are required to write. Rather it's a book you'd like to read. Nothing is impossible, no parameters, no comfort zone, just the need to tell a story which grabs the reader and carry him/her through to the very end. This means intrigue, excitement, menace, tension, action - the whole works.

3. Cheat if you like, give the synopsis a blazing ending that subverts the assumptions you started out with. You can go back and fix the inconsistencies later. Or change the ending altogether.

4. Think in three acts, each with a climax. This will force you to concentrate on the necessary momentum and narrative progression.

5. When you have a synopsis which makes you sit up straight, THEN you can start expanding it into a chapter-by-chapter plot. If you need one.

It works, it really does. Two hours after starting out, I know which characters have a firm role in this story, including one about whom I harboured serious doubts. I was able to see that a plot angle I was contemplating was over-blown and sat too dramatically with the rest of the plotting. So I changed it, re-tuning to the right frequency. That alone has saved me hours of re-writing at a later date. I now feel ready to get stuck back into the writing. No more gremlins just the hard slog of getting black on white.

So there you have it - my top tip, for what it's worth. Would anyone like to share theirs?



24 comments:

Nik Perring said...

Great advice. I'm still not all that keen on them though ;)

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Nik. I wouldn't ask any writer to love synopses. That'd be like asking a cabbie to love bus drivers. Just... learn to make them work for us?

Nik Perring said...

Absolutely. I think the problem is (and I've not had to write one in an age) that they're so different to writing fiction, in our approach to them, their content and execution. Like asking a jet pilot to fly a liner? Maybe that's a poor comparison. What I mean is they're different, but not different enough to be fresh.

I'll stop there. Babble, babble.

N :)

PS and, of course, as with any writing, they're difficult to get right.

Quillers said...

I wish I'd read this before sending off the synopsis with my mini-novel, Sarah. It's great advice, and I'll definitely be bearing it in mind for next time!

Sarah Hilary said...

True, Nik, true. Maybe I need a new name for this one-page wonder document? Because it's somewhat different to what we know as a synopsis. Suggestions

Nik Perring said...

I guess it's like a more academic version of film script treatment, or perhaps a post novel plan?

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Sally, sorry the timing was off for you.

Sarah Hilary said...

Nik, the film treatment is an apt analogy. In my case I use this Super Synopsis (somehow I don't think I'll need to be copyrighting that name!!) when I'm at the start of a new novel and need to get a firm fix on making sure it has a three act story to tell and isn't just an over-inflated "idea".

Nik Perring said...

That's a hugely important distinction to make, isn't it.

Synopsis Ultra?

Sarah Hilary said...

Synopsis Lite? It won't "fill you up" the way the full-fate variety does. Er, maybe not. (Excess use can cause swelling of ego as writer decides her work is done for the day but in fact it's just getting started.)

Brian Keaney said...

Tips:
1. Write the synopsis before you write the book.
2. Don't confuse a synopsis with an outline.
3. Consider the synopsis as an advert for the book not as a summary of the plot.
4. If you can't boil your novel down to a one page synopsis, don't bother writing it.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Brian, and your 4) is actually extremely good advice although likely to be met by squeals of outrage from writers who like to think their manuscripts defy reducing to a synopsis (if this is the case then chances are the story is long-winded, self-indulgent or may actually not be a story at all so much as an example of how wonderfully the author can string words together). I used the one page word limit deliberately ruthlessly this afternoon because I know I have a tendency to complicate my plots and my major goal with this new novel is to stick with a single plotline and take it deep. Forcing myself to tell the essence of the story in a single page made me see straightaway what needed to be cut and what formed the core and pips of the plot.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

cant comment, as Ive never really done one- apart from The Telegraph competition, which asked for first 1000 wds and a synopsis. I found out about the comp as the deadline loomed, literally, so had no time at all to think.

My synopsis was a single short paragraph.

Sarah Hilary said...

Even better, V, you wrote the book jacket blurb!

belantana said...

My main problem at the moment is getting the story itself past 800 words, Sarah! Glad you've been kicking some synopsis-arse, though. :)

Gay Degani said...

Oh man, now I have no excuse NOT to do this. Thanks, Sarah, dang.

Sarah Hilary said...

J, re synopsis arse-kicking, it's fun to get one over on the awkward cuss..! And 800 word stories can be excellent.

Sarah Hilary said...

Gay, no you don't! Especially when you're the Queen of the Three Act structure. It really is a great discipline.

JohnA said...

Sarah, an interesting twist on the writing of a synopsis is to start with a single sentence that captures, in the broadest sense, what the story is about, then expand this to one, and then two paragraphs - and, eventually, to a page.

A sort of bottom-up construction.

Julie Corbin said...

Good advice, Sarah. It's great to be able to use the synopsis to bring the story into focus so that less time is spent heading off on paths that lead nowhere. I head off in the 'wrong' direction all the time and although that writing often comes in handy elsewhere, it doesn't help with deadlines and it doesn't help me sell the idea on.

Sarah Hilary said...

John, I love that idea! It sounds like a great way of acid-testing that "is this an egotistical IDEA or could it be a STORY?"

I'm going to try it with my new novel, thanks! I was once caught out by an agent asking me what my novel was about and finding I couldn't articulate it in a single sentence, which felt like a fatal error in retrospect (I didn't know she was an agent at the time, it was midnight in Bantry after the Fish ceremony and I was a tiny bit tipsy.) I resolved to always after that be able to describe any novel of mine in a sentence. Your idea is a great way to fix that in my mind. Have you used it yourself?

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi Julie, good to have you here. Yes it's the "selling on" challenge which made me resolve to get this synopsis lark whipped. See JohnA's idea in this thread for further help - it's a good one!

Jenzarina said...

Absolutely nothing to do with synopsises... synopsii... what is the plural?

Just wondering where all the lovely artwork for your blog comes from. The blog has a very professional look.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Jen! I try hard to make the blog look interesting. I get most of the pics from here:

http://www.sxc.hu/

The Battersea Power Station banner is borrowed from Colin Halliday, whom I credit on the front page of my blog.